Groan. Silvia Killingsworth of The New Yorker loaded her essay with a record amount of links and this blogger dutifully included each and every one in today's post. The best part of the essay came in the final two sentences. Pure Strunk & White: not alright, but all right. Obviously, the word of the year isn't "alright." If this is (fair & balanced) wordsmanship, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
And The Word Of The Year Is...
By Silvia Killingsworth
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
Credit: APA selfie taken on a mobile phone by Riccardo Arcelli, second from left, with Pope Francis in the Vatican.
Hold on to your monocles, friends—the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2013 is “selfie.” It’s an informal noun (plural: selfies) defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” It was first used in 2002 [Post ID: 169902], in an Australian online forum (compare the Australian diminutives “barbie” for barbecue and “firie” for firefighter), and it first appeared as a hashtag, #selfie, on Flickr, in 2004. Now, before you go tweeting about the demise of the English language, let me kindly remind you that the Oxford Dictionary Online is not the same thing as the Oxford English Dictionary. The O.D.O. reflects current and practical usage; it’s the liberal and inclusive descriptivist dictionary, and is frequently updated. It demonstrates the language as it’s being used today, much like Joe Toscano’s Twitter bot, @tofu_product, imitates your Twitter voice by using an algorithm that reads your most recent two hundred or so tweets (“Tofu absorbs flavor. I write like you do,” reads its bio). The O.E.D., on the other hand, is a historical document that relies heavily on quotations and chronology as evidence for the development of meaning over time. Words can be removed from the O.D.O. after they stopped being used, but words are never (really) removed from the O.E.D.
Selfies are everywhere these days. They feature prominently in Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” as a cinematic trope—the main characters take dozens of pictures of themselves partying at Hollywood clubs and wearing pilfered designer clothing and upload them to Facebook. The Mars Rover has taken a selfie. The Pope appeared in a selfie taken by some Italian youngsters inside St. Peter’s Basilica (but I would argue this doesn’t exactly count as a Papal selfie—His Holiness is very clearly not the one holding the camera phone). Kim Kardashian is the premier selfie artist of our time, and Instagram is her showroom. Her most infamous selfie to date is a revealing post-baby shot of her in a dressing room wearing a white bathing suit, simply captioned “#NoFilter,” to which Kanye West then responded, via Twitter, “HEADING HOME NOW.” Kim’s sister Khloe recently gave a radio interview in which she divulged Kim’s supposed secrets, saying, “Flash is our friend,” and offering a tip to shoot from above to avoid double chins. But selfies aren’t just for the young. This summer Geraldo Rivera tweeted a photo of himself in nothing but a towel, proclaiming “70 is the new 50” (citing tequila, he later deleted the image, and tweeted, “Note to self: no tweeting after 1am”). Even The New Yorker has participated in making “selfie” happen: a cartoon by Corey Pandolph in this week’s Tech Issue depicts a woman sitting for a street artist, whom she instructs, “Make it look like a selfie.”
Strictly speaking, the modern-day selfie is a digital affair, but it’s a novel iteration of an old form: the self-portrait (a friend on Twitter joked, “was Lascaux the first selfie?”). As Kate Losse points out in her excellent primer, a notable point of inflection in the selfie’s recent meteoric rise was the addition of a front-facing camera to the iPhone 4. A selfie doesn’t even have to be of one’s face; my colleague Emily Greenhouse described Anthony Weiner as “a distributor of below-the-waist selfies.” Jack Dorsey, arguably the pioneer of the mass-distributed selfie, also introduced us to selfie Vines, six-second videos shareable on Twitter. Indeed, the selfie is nothing if not a visual shorthand for Dorsey’s initial vision for Twitter as a status updater—“here’s where I am, here’s what I’m doing.” Sometimes, a selfie of what you’re doing can be downright dangerous. A recent AAA report about the dangers of distracted driving warned against a new trend of taking selfies while driving and uploading them to Twitter and Instagram using the hashtags like #drivingselfie and #rainx. John B. Townsend II, a spokesperson for AAA, is quoted as saying, “Don’t let that driving selfie or video be the last photo you ever take.”
There was a media kerfuffle back in August when the Oxford Dictionaries announced the addition of “selfie” to its corpus, along with “twerk,” “vom,” “phablet,” and a slew of other words that appear to have been lifted from alphabet soup. The news was delivered in a cutesy blog post, titled “Buzzworthy words added to Oxford Dictionaries Online—squee!” in which the editors took pains to cleverly present each word in context. More than anything, this reflects self-awareness and knowledge of their audience. The Oxford Dictionaries’ fluency with the Web is increasingly apparent—they now release quarterly updates, and the ensuing media flurry is no accident. It is telling that their Word of the Year for 2013 was announced before Thanksgiving, rather than say, in December or even January, when Merriam-Webster and the American Dialect Society respectively announce their top words. There are as many words of the year as there are dictionary outlets. Katherine Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford, told me in an e-mail, “the concept of a Word of the Year is inherently subjective: we analyze frequency and historical evidence, but our real goal is to identify an emerging word that embodies the zeitgeist of the year, and that is the driving force behind the choice.”
The word “selfie” is not yet in the O.E.D., but it is currently being considered for future inclusion; whether the word makes it into the history books is truly for the teens to decide. As Ben Zimmer wrote at Language Log, “Youth slang is the obvious source for much of our lexical innovation, like it or not.” And despite its cloying tone, that Oxford Dictionaries blog post from August does allude to the increasingly important distinction between “acronym“ and “initialism”—either of which may describe the expression “LOL,” depending if you pronounce it “lawl” or “ell-oh-ell.” The kids are going to be all right. Not “alright.” But all right. Ω
[Silvia Killingsworth is the Managing Editor of The New Yorker. Before she joined The New Yorker, Killingsworth was an assistant to Joanne Lipman, the founding Editor-in-Chief of Conde Nast Portfolio magazine. Killingsworth received a BA from Harvard University before joining the magazine.]
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